It was less than 3 years ago when I first stepped foot into a pre-pandemic packed Barton Hall, filled with tables of students talking at lightning speed, calling me over or handing me a sheet of paper. This year, that scene was brought back to life. Our first-years and sophomores, students of covid, saw a picture of a crowded Arts Quad as their first Clubfest experience.
Clubfest is the introduction a first-year and transfer student has to the Cornell community outside of dorm walls and classroom lectures. Clubfest allows you to explore the plethora of student organizations that Cornell has to offer – many include the potential for friendships with Cornellians across colleges and across years that are founded on interests and passions, not just physical proximity on your dorm floor or in your class.
About two years ago, a Sun columnist shared their thoughts about Cornell Clubfest and included some well thought out ideas of how to fix the way that we go about our clubfest. They correctly pointed out that clubs are meant to foster your passions and interests outside of academic pursuits, and thus should allow for more room for the student to meet the club and for the club to meet the student.
Instead, first-years are met with an onslaught of information sessions, coffee chats and application deadlines. That means that right off the bat, they are often competing for entrance into a club with some of their newfound friends. This is not only time consuming and exhausting, but potentially harmful to individuals who join a club with no precepts to the environment they are joining. Instead of building meaningful insight into a club, our current method allows for a club to perform, to put on their best selves without any recognition of the truth behind their expectations, their long (and unnecessary) applications, and their club’s environments.
While it may seem trivial to discuss clubs and their implications, the truth is that your admission to a club, specifically professional ones, can be impactful. They foster robust alumni networks and can connect you to future internships and jobs. Yet, not all of this is known to many of the first years who walk through the doors of Barton Hall (or this year the Arts Quad). The exclusivity that these clubs foster is generally not understood until later down the line.
This impacts all first-year students, but I would be remiss to ignore the disproportionate impact that this has on students of color. As a former e-board member of the Cornell Political Union, I have experienced first-hand the blatant disregard for diversity and the minimal efforts made to change the club’s toxic environment. Many of these clubs rationalize their systemic issues with a simple excuse: “they’re just not applying and they’re just not interested”.
This pretext is both true and false. It’s true that students of color don’t apply to some clubs, but it’s false in its assumption that they are not interested. This pretext generalizes an entire swath of students who have a variety of different passions, where exclusive clubs may exist. Further, it simplifies the reasons for why students of color don’t apply, ignoring the lack of people of color in club leadership, membership and recruitment efforts.
Even after gaining entrance into a club, inclusion and retention efforts are nonexistent. Even when students of color are in positions of leadership within a club, more often than not they are touted as tokens of diversity expected to lead diversity and inclusion efforts in addition to their academics, personal life and other responsibilities. The work, the effort and the exhaustion is placed on their bodies for the benefit of a club and its members that do not care enough for them.
And this leads me back to the clubs you join. Clubs should be grounded in reality. The reality is that we’re students, we’re curious, we’re looking for community and we’re deserving of whatever resources, friends and opportunities that stand behind the many interview rounds, resume checks or arbitrary application processes.
And I am not saying that you shouldn’t get involved on campus, I mainly ask that we don’t perpetuate the hollow belief that you need to have previous experience or knowledge — to gain access to a club. There shouldn’t be any barriers to entry when the point of clubs is to build community, foster curiosity and passion for areas that aren’t covered through academics.
Right now, there are a myriad of club recruitment efforts happening throughout campus and as a senior looking back on my time, I’d like to give a little advice.
Look out for the clubs you join. Ask older students about their experiences and ask about their members of color. Remember, don’t fall for the enthusiastic and exciting performance at Clubfest.
Hold the clubs you join or are interested in joining accountable to you, and ask hard questions about their club’s environment.
The clubs you join will lead you to some of the greatest friendships and most amazing experiences you’ll have at Cornell, so make sure you choose the ones that want to choose you right back.
Vanessa Olguín is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Long Story Short runs every other Friday this semester.